Gripping Stuff – Nicholas Provost’s and Alex Prager’s View on Hollywood Romance
I have always admired 2 Many DJs for their capacity to merge two seemingly incompatible songs by artists of opposite ends of the musical spectrum into one brilliant fit. It makes you wonder why you have never noticed the similarities between the two before. Belgian video artist and film maker Nicolas Provost does something comparable in his short Gravity. In a way, it is a classic love story: two people meet and fall in love, after a while they finally kiss for the first time and their relationship grows. But then they start doubting their feelings for each other, and suddenly something terrible happens, after which one of the lovers abandons the other. The end.
The kiss takes centre stage in Provost’s film. It symbolises and encompasses everything: it is tenderness, passion, awe, yearning, love, sex, ferocity, anguish, despair, disbelief, doubt, and war. You can sense the sigh, feel the embrace, drown in the feels. The musical score subtly fades in and out of the scenes, providing rhythm, enhancing the viewer’s emotions and mirroring the visual content. But the kiss is the climax of the film, the ultimate moment the actors have been working towards. After the kiss, it can and will only go downhill for the characters. This is Hollywood romance at its syrupy best.
Gravity is a masterpiece in simple, yet brilliant editing. Provost sets a fast and relentless pace by splicing together a large number of very short film cuts. Frame, black, frame, black, frame, black, frame. The effect is comparable to looking straight into a stroboscope. Provost’s shuttered approach causes a true head rush, a vertigo of the senses. It mirrors the emotional overload that the movie’s protagonists experience. Despite the stroboscopic effect, or perhaps because of it, we can still catch the drift of the film. All the fragments contain dark-haired, strong-jawed men that sport chiseled torsos and are impeccably dressed like Clark Gable or Carey Grant. All the women are strong characters that somehow still need rescuing. They wear red-lipstick, they have curled hair and heart-shaped faces just like Ingrid Bergman or Vivien Leigh.
The film is held together by the incredible similarity between the poses of the various actors and the expressions they adopt in the many Hollywood movies from the 1940s and 1950s that were used as source material. Only the fades to black between the individual clips tell us that we have actually switched films. Gravity is full of instantly recognisable tropes, which together weave the various strands of the narrative. In fact, there is a meta-narrative at play here, since the individual story lines of the film fragments come together to create the prototypical love story. Gravity is therefore the ultimate condensation of movies such as Gone with the Wind or Casablanca. The impressive bit is that Provost has managed to condense them all in one single short piece lasting merely 6 minutes.
Another visual artist who plays off the feel of classic Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s is Alex Prager. In a sense, her short La Petite Mort starts where Gravity stopped. The main character is a woman who could have walked straight out of any classic Hollywood movie. She has got the large eye lashes, the feminine curves, the luxuriously curled hair. She has been abandoned by her lover and she has already reached rock bottom. The anguish and despair is visible on her face. A train is approaching fast, the shrill noise of the train whistle signalling her inevitable doom. Anxiously we wonder: can she still be saved? It seems so, since just before impact with the train the woman falls backwards into a nearby pond.
The film slows down to let the woman swim in murky waters to reach the surface, thus trying to overcome her problems. Unfortunately, this does not solve anything. She rises from the water still dry, still impeccably and glamorously dressed, still anguished. She clambers up the slope to confront an angry crowd. Who are these people? And who are they to judge her? Uncertain she pushes her way through the livid mass of people. She is trying to ignore their cruel and accusing stares as best as she can, until she ultimately reaches her goal. We see a man, but he is a bit of a disappointment. He is certainly no Carey Grant. Was this the man who abandoned her? She tries to reach out to him, but then drops to the floor.
La Petite Morte has a similar musical score to Gravity. It fades in and out. It creates suspense and hints at complex feelings and experiences that cannot always be adequately expressed visually, such as anguish, dread and doom. Like Provost, Prager makes use of the stroboscopic effect, if only for a moment, to visualise the swirling and confusing feelings. But whereas Provost relies solely on fast editing to create overwhelming sensations, Prager prefers the use of vivid colours. She deftly weaves together the influence of photographic predecessors such as William Eggleston, Cindy Sherman, Enrique Metinides and Weegee as well as film makers like Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel and David Lynch. In that sense, she has a lot in common with Provost, who throughout his career has been fascinated by cinema’s history.
But whereas Provost does not provide us with closure in Gravity, hinting at a possible, unseen happy end, La Petite Mort is more brutal in its implications.
Prager’s film tries to visualise both death and orgasm, and indeed the title is the French euphemism for the latter. But just like in most classic Hollywood movies, sex or death is not actually shown in La Petite Mort. It is alluded to, hinted at, implied. But whereas Provost does not provide us with closure in Gravity, hinting at a possible, unseen happy end, La Petite Mort is more brutal in its implications. The credits role over a train track slipping away from underneath us. The life of the female lead is slowly, but surely coming to its inexorable end.